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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Victory by Hard-Liner in Iran Could Widen Rift With U.S. - New York Times

Victory by Hard-Liner in Iran Could Widen Rift With U.S. - New York TimesJune 26, 2005
Victory by Hard-Liner in Iran Could Widen Rift With U.S.
By DAVID E. SANGER

WASHINGTON, June 25 - Even before Iranians went to the polls in their presidential election, the Bush administration declared the process rigged, saying that no matter what the outcome, Iran would be truly ruled by men who "spread terror across the world."

Yet almost no one in Washington expected the landslide victory of the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran's next president. And now, facing a populist who came to age in the student union that took over the American Embassy in 1979, the administration is bracing for a long, hot summer of confrontation with Iran, first over its nuclear programs, then over terrorism, and perhaps over the fueling of the insurgency in Iraq.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has made little secret of his determination that one way or another, Iran is going to become a nuclear nation, though he has been careful to deny that Iran's ultimate goal is to build a weapon, as Washington has charged.

"Nuclear energy is a result of Iranian people's scientific development, and no one can block the way of a nation's scientific development," he said as he emerged from the polls on Friday. "This right of the Iranian people will soon be recognized by those who have so far denied it."

Mr. Bush and his aides have insisted that Iran cannot be trusted with the ingredients for a nuclear weapon, even if they are legally entitled to them as Iran claims under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The United States argues that Iran gave up that right by hiding 17 years of nuclear work from international inspectors. Now, there is an undercurrent among administration officials and outside experts that the outcome of the election might actually make it easier for the administration to press that case.

Earlier in the week, one of Mr. Bush's closest aides said that no matter who won, "we may be looking at a summer of simultaneous crises on opposite sides of the world," one in Iran and one in North Korea.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's win may well bolster the skepticism within the administration that the Europeans can persuade Iran to trade away its ability to produce its own nuclear fuel.

"It will feed the arguments of those in the Bush administration who think the only option is to come down hard because they can expect the Iranians will take a harder line, too," said Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of "The Persian Puzzle" (Random House, 2004). "That may not be a valid argument because it is not clear that the decisions about the nuclear issue are going to be made by Ahmadinejad, any more than they were made by his predecessor," President Mohammad Khatami, he said.

Washington has assumed that the nuclear decisions have been made by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been viewed as unwilling to give up his country's nuclear card, but careful not to drive the Europeans, with whom Iran has growing diplomatic and trade relations, onto the side of Americans arguing for sanctions. Last week, officials at the White House, the State Department and the Treasury said work was under way on new programs to intercept suspected shipments of weapons technology programs clearly aimed at Tehran and Pyongyang.

Whether the election results turns out to be the result of manipulation or a true measure of the Iranian mood, Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory consolidates the power of Tehran's most conservative members, closing the gap between the mullahs and a government that had tried to encourage dialogue with Washington's European allies, and, at least in its early years, to engineer greater social freedom.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's government will very shortly face difficult choices. The three European powers that have taken over the nuclear negotiations - Britain, France and Germany - have set a deadline for next month to make a full offer of financial incentives to Iran. Already the Iranian Foreign Ministry has said it will end its self-imposed moratorium on enriching uranium - one way to produce nuclear fuel for reactors or weapons - but it has made those threats before.

A senior European diplomat involved in the issue said this week that if the moratorium ends, "we have no choice but to end the negotiations." He had hoped to be negotiating with Mr. Ahmadinejad's more moderate opponent, the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who said, at least publicly, that he was willing to talk.

Before the election, some European officials thought that they might have ended up with a better than even chance at a compromise, one that might have allowed Iran to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure, but under conditions that made it difficult to impossible to enrich enough fuel to make a weapon.

Apart from the nuclear issue, Iran is a challenge to other parts of Mr. Bush's agenda for the Middle East. American military officials say there is still a flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, some of them from the Iranian border. President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, recently argued that "Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terror," noting in an interview that "Iran's policy is to get rid of Israel."

Such statements have been part of the administration's gradual hardening on Iran in the past two years. But some who witnessed the election say it may be premature to conclude that Iran, fresh from the election, will revel in taking on its longtime rival.

Ayatollah Khamenei, said Mark J. Gasiorowski, an Iran expert at Louisiana State University, may "want to avoid provoking the U.S."

In an e-mail message from Tehran, he speculated that Iranian hard-liners, having achieved their victory, may want to keep their talks going, though they maybe "less likely than before to reach an agreement on U.S. terms."

The unanswered question is whether Mr. Bush, already tied up in Iraq, and unlikely to get many of his allies to go along with harsh sanctions, will have any choice but to deal with the new, hard-line Iranian government - even if it is one he has already rejected it as illegitimate.

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